Civics 101(a): You have no First Amendment rights


Man with mouth duct-taped shut.

What's stuck between you and your right to free speech?

This week a local student was told he wouldn’t be marching with his graduating class because he’d posted a comment on Facebook that criticized his college’s administration for keeping the school open despite significant tornado damage — damage that had closed a nearby campus for the rest of the term.

Earlier this year, a local high school teacher told a student that he would withdraw the boy’s college recommendations as a result of “inconvenient truths” the boy had included in a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. The youth had dared to add fuel to the fire of a countywide debate over whether (1) desegregation had succeeded in our county and (2) all youth were getting an excellent education. He noted that in the magnet school he attended, the “magnet” class students were almost all Asian or Caucasian; the “base program” students African-American. That is to say, his school offered education that was not separate, but also not equal. And for that public commentary, his teacher threatened retaliation.

Has Government class changed that much since I graduated?

What about you? Do you feel like you can speak your mind freely, or are you constrained by concerns about keeping your job, fitting in with your peers, or something else?

So far in my life, I’ve felt like my “free speech” has been constrained by:

  • Professional responsibilities as a mainstream journalist — when you work in the media, you’re not allowed to take public political positions.
  • Professional responsibilities to a consulting firm where I worked — when I opposed a development project in my town, I couldn’t speak up at the public hearings that my firm was running for the project’s proponents.
  • Membership in a conservative Christian church — as long as the pastor was handing out the “Christian voter guides” I wouldn’t be suggesting openly that the Bible also speaks about a number of diverging issues the voter guides didn’t address.
  • Professional responsibilities as a fundraiser — I have no stickers on my car more controversial than the one for Dunkin’ Donuts (no Starbucks coffee here!); I raise no objections when a donor suggests that a prostitute in the neighborhood we serve has made a positive life choice because she’s running her own business, instead of accepting welfare.
  • And then, of course, we’ve all been enjoined to “manage” our “online brand” — that is to say, the old advice to say nothing in print you wouldn’t want to see in The New York Times is now extended to “say nothing anywhere online that you wouldn’t want a job recruiter to find.” I learned the most astonishing truth of this when an aside in a personal email to a friend was forwarded to a government official and ended up entered in the public record — open to be Googled forever (or for seven years, however long public records are kept these days).

When Jesus lived, the idea of free speech had hardly been born. A Roman citizen like Paul could debate in the Areopagus, but Paul’s advice to the ordinary believer was simply to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13.1). “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live in peace with everyone.” (Rom. 12: 18)

Today, in this country, our Constitution says we’re free to debate … but many of us are governed by authorities that seriously restrict our speech.

What about you? Do you feel free to speak? Where?

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About Carlene Byron

Writer, editor, publicist, communications project manager ... I've written technology and infrastructure; I used to edit New England Church Life and The New England Christian and I've freelanced to publications ranging from Commonweal to Christianity Today. I'm now living in my hometown in Maine and am speaking about global perspectives on suicide prevention.
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One Response to Civics 101(a): You have no First Amendment rights

  1. And of course today, a high school student in CT has been told he won’t be going to his prom because he “trespassed” on school property (hello! I thought school property was public property that belonged to the public …) to tape foot-high letters onto the wall of the building inviting his sweetie to the event. Let James Tate go to the prom, for goodness sake! http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Let-James-Tate-Go-to-the-Prom/146161672121334

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